The best era in filmmaking history is the era that got me excited about movies. I was entering middle school in the late 2000s, and my parents showed me, Juno.
It was love at first sight.
Juno was the big sister I never had. She was rebellious in all of the ways I wanted to be. She drank a gallon of sunny D, and with the help of her friend, transported a whole sofa onto Bleeker’s lawn to greet him before cross country practice. I mimicked her pregnant lumber in the halls at school, and cut the front strands of my hair to hang out of my ponytail, just like hers.
Around this time, I also became obsessed with Pretty in Pink, arguably another indie rom com. This movie had its fair share of re-runs in my house, but Andie’s character never quite inhabited my heart the way Juno did. That’s because Juno follows the early 2000’s recipe for a perfect indie rom com.
Indie rom coms of the early 2000s are a special breed. With color palettes of oranges and reds, watching them feels like a big, warm hug. Amelie is a perfect example of this. The entire movie has a yellow-green tint, which makes ordinary street scenes seem rustic and swampy. This allows the important objects to pop, like Amelie’s red umbrella.
Characters of Indie Rom Com
Characters in indie rom coms are defined by their material worlds. Amelie lives in a treasure trove of vintage furniture, which feeds her ever-present imagination. Juno has her hamburger phone, which serves as a reminder that Juno is not to be taken seriously. (This is perhaps a nod to the arts and crafts movement of the early 1900s, which valued material craftsmanship over industrial goods. In a world that’s slowly being taken over by smart phones and computers, us modern folks can relate to the desire to escape it all.)
Character is another important element. In Ghost World, which just barely sneaks into my own rom com category, Enid is known for her dark humor and trouble-causing nature. We grow used to her frequent trips to bother Josh at the convenient store, where she greets him with “well hello there young employee.” Thanks to these scenes, we know what to expect from Enid, and in turn look forward to conflict, almost like a teacher who establishes their discipline strategies on the first day. This isn’t what makes a character seem like a real person, though.
When Enid meets Seymore for the first time at his garage sale, the scene is already awkward because he’s so much older than her. Even though Rebecca tugs on her sleeve to go, Enid can tell right off the bat that Seymore is serious about his record collection, and she decides to make polite conversation instead of making jokes. To amplify the seriousness of this scene, there’s a lot of quiet space – the pauses between Seymore’s sentences, Enid flipping through records. It’s almost happening in real time. Now that we’ve experienced Enid being genuine, we are more likely to believe her when she says things like, “he’s actually kind of cool” in the diner afterwards.
The Edge of Seventeen, a 2016 rom com, takes inspiration from movies like Ghost World and Juno. It, too, features an angsty teen with a troubled home life and a snappy sense of humor. On paper, The Edge of Seventeen doesn’t look too different from other more respectable indie rom coms. The difference is in its lack of genuine moments. Every character in this movie has a schtick that they act with Disney Channel-esque intention. I find myself too busy watching their facial expressions to feel what’s supposed to be happening, whether it be budding romance or crumbling depression.
Finally, plot. In early 2000s indie rom coms, it’s sharp like a pencil, with zero room for error. Juno plunges immediately into the core issue of the movie: Juno is pregnant. We follow her every course of action, from visiting an abortion clinic to picking out foster parents. Moments of contemplation are placed between these scenes so as to not distract from the course of events, but add to them. The first scene is one of the only quiet moments like this. Juno walks to the convenience store by herself, and we can see the anxiety of being pregnant setting in on her face, sinking into her shoulders.
Pretty in Pink is not so streamlined. The intrigue in this story is that Andie is an outcast with a crush on someone she’s not allowed to have a crush on. Andie’s daily course of action unfolds organically from there, but it’s never clear what her motives are. This is in some ways a beautiful reflection of real life, but it also makes the movie feel less reliable than a movie like Juno. The 90’s Reality Bites follows the same model. I couldn’t tell you what happens in that movie beyond “the guy gets the girl.”
Whimsy, a film element usually only found in Wes Anderson films, is worth mentioning.
The early 2000s indie rom com that blew my mind most recently is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Eternal Sunshine sets an example for where rom coms can go. The concept of memory erasing is explored in this movie, and done so with no detectable CGI. I’m sure it’s there, you just can’t tell because the movie relies more on props, like a puppet show.
Clementine slides across the floor into the darkness with the help of a rope tethered to her back. A car filled with beach sand drives past displaced office desks on the freeway. This movie deconstructs thoughts in a poetic, absurd way. Also, time goes backwards. The movie starts post-breakup, and we learn about Joel and Clementine’s relationship as it unravels in Joel’s mind.[f]
Heartbreak in movies typically looks like a rainy day with lots of crying, so to see it depicted more as a trippy circus show feels closer to the sometimes happy, sometimes sad nature of a breakup.
“Early 2000s indie rom coms” is a mouthful.
Let’s break that down: “indie” movies are movies that are rebellious enough not to be supported by a major Hollywood studio. Because this category is so broad, there are likely more indie movies than Hollywood ones.
Indie movies have been around since the 1930s, when the Italian Neorealism movement began. Movies from this movement featured poor, working-class families and non-professional actors. They were meant to express the pains of war, poverty, and injustice. It has since been proved that movies like this can be majorly successful, but indie movies are still an outlet for the underrepresented. In my case, that’s girls.
According to the LA times, 31% of movies featured female protagonists in 2018. This number has been steadily increasing over the years. I’d venture to say that female-driven indie movies are more common than Hollywood ones. The female-driven indie rom com category is an obscure one, though.
Romantic comedy skeptics, I gotchu.
Not only does the relationship element distract from the personal journey of the main character, it also places a lot of importance on pairing up and settling down. I can partially credit romantic comedies for my desire to meet my soulmate in high school, which was not as successful as I would have hoped. Romantic comedies are important, though, because relationships are a part of life. If we didn’t have outlets to express ourselves when we go through a breakup or meet the love of our life, we would go crazy. Just like any other genre, romantic comedies have plenty to teach us.
Juno taught me that I can be a mess and still be loved for it. It also set an example for me of the kind of girl I wanted to be: a weary one, with eccentric collectibles and a lot of resilience. Everyone deserves a movie with someone they look up to in it. That’s why recent movies like Eighth Grade, Frances Ha, and Lady Bird are so wonderful. I believe any movie can benefit from following the recipe for a perfect 2000s indie rom com, though. There are too many movies out there with hard-to-follow plots and flat characters. Toss a couple of slow, anticlimactic dialogue scenes in there and you’re good to go.